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Richmond Greenway and Lincoln School Garden

School gardens have something for everybody

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Briana Orozco, who is in charge of supplies for her Linco...

Call it zeitgeist, or a social leveler: Long before the unpleasantness on Wall Street, we heard talk about "food security" from school-garden mavens in places as disparate as Mill Valley and Richmond's Iron Triangle.

Visiting two this month, we saw live examples of another leveler - pocket gophers.

In both gardens, they popped out of the ground like sock puppets. In both gardens, excited kids crowded around the holes in hope of an encore appearance. Everybody's planting butterfly gardens, and hooray for that, but for maximum student involvement, schools ought to consider gopher gardens - not, apparently, that there's any alternative.

Edna Maguire School in Mill Valley and Lincoln School in Richmond have a few things in common. They're public elementary schools, both in warm, sunny microclimates - "banana belts." Both have the spontaneous, always artistic, sometimes wobbly decor that happens when young kids are handed paintbrushes and not ordered to stay inside the lines.

And, of course, those gophers.

18-year-old garden

Edna Maguire School's garden was started 18 years ago, when the school was closed. Skip Kimura of Green Gulch Gardens at the Zen Center's Marin County retreat laid the foundations and planted the orchard's first trees, some of them heirloom apples, some of now-unknown lineage.

When Mill Valley's demographics called for it, Maguire School was reopened and its 11 acres of land reverted to the use of its 430 kindergarten through fifth-grade students.

Since then, the garden's been run by parent volunteers. Its current honcho is Saor Stetler, an engaging young guy who must put in lots of time there; his daughter sailed blithely past us amid her kindergarten gaggle without so much as a "Daddy's here!" double take.

Through their garden, she and her schoolmates will learn math, science, art and immediately practical matters like nutrition.

Principal Lisa Zimmer sums up: "Which would kids rather eat: a packaged snack or a tomato they just picked, that they grew themselves?" (Some of us think the first step in this lesson would be to lose that distancing word "nutrition" and talk about tasting glorious food.)

New trees are being planted along with vines and veggies. From one, the kids pick subtly sweet purple mulberries, rarely available commercially; most people have never tasted them. They follow their produce from soil to table - or to sale, at their own stand in the Mill Valley farmers' market, along with pastries and sauces made from their harvest by parent volunteers.

Maguire School's garden art includes a striking mosaic spiral labyrinth that includes a map of our solar system. Teachers bring random classes out to this spot just to enjoy the fresh air while learning.

Lincoln School in Richmond has a garden that has expanded beyond the school's modest lot into a part of the Richmond Greenway thanks to teacher Park Guthrie and Urban Tilth, the Five Percent Project and lots of volunteers.

When we visited in February, there were enthusiastic 8- to 10-year-olds picking and weeding and sharing their greens and herbs. That's another thing we've seen in every school garden over the past decade - enthusiastic kids. Even the ones who work at being bored get caught up in something, authorized or not, and start asking interesting questions.

This project's funding is as iffy as that of any other public goods, so we were gratified to see that it had not only survived summer vacation but even expanded and joined forces with a community garden run by neighbor Doria Robinson. There are more beds, more trees, more berry bushes in the associated Berryland, on the Greenway just across Sixth Street.

Sense of ownership

Clearly there's a sense of community ownership of this parkway. An unprepossessing man wheeling a tall blue trash cart down the path asked if we knew where to get another, as he'd clearly filled his with "garbage I've been picking up all along here. Just tryin' to keep busy, man." He added a paint-stiffened jacket to his collection, heading toward a Dumpster a few blocks away.

Jeff Lee, who owns the corrugated-metal building facing the garden, funded a new mural: puzzle pieces individually painted by high school students.

The school's planting beds are tagged with photos and biographies of the students assigned to them this semester. Several of the adjacent community beds sport "pick me/recogas me!" placards urging path users to help themselves to surplus tomatoes and other veggies.

Both gardens flourish with community support: Lincoln gets mulch dropped off by city of Richmond tree-chip trucks; Maguire gets manure from the horses on Horse Hill next to Route 101. Both draw in volunteers and can always use more. Both offer education of the sort we both envy, remembering our own school days.

Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan are naturalists and freelance garden writers in Berkeley. Check out their Web site at www.selbornesurveys.com or e-mail them at home@sfchronicle.com.